Enter the Anti-museum: Why Virtual Experiences Lead to Better Learning

Westworld, starring Yul Brynner, has been one of my all-time favorite movies since it was released back in 1973. Envisioned by Michael Crichton, Westworld was a fictional theme park where tourists could go to experience life in another historical period. The park had a medieval world, a Roman world and, of course, Westworld, a recreation of the old American west.

Each world was populated with carefully programmed androids who behaved as people from each time period would have during their normal daily activities. Guests of the park were given appropriate clothing and instructed to assume the role of a character from the period. The inevitable malfunctions occur, and the droids run amok and gun down real people rather than their fellow robots, with real bullets.

In many ways, Westworld epitomises the kind of immersive, interactive, challenging educational experiences that are available, both physically and virtually, today. Although I’m not suggesting that we all necessarily need to wage war against gun-toting malfunctioning androids in order to learn about our ancient heritage, I do think that the movie illustrates a model of education that we should aspire to.

Fortunately, there are some excellent, and much safer, educational resources out there.

HBO’s Rome Theme Park

But I can’t help wishing I could visit a theme park like that where you not only dress up and take on the persona of someone from the past but interact with others – some play acting like yourself – or a carefully programmed participant who can truly relay the feelings, opinions and ideas of someone who might have lived back then.

I thought I might finally get the chance when I heard that Cinecitta Studios in Rome was going to construct such a theme park using the carefully researched sets that it produced for the filming of the HBO/BBC miniseries Rome. However, it seems there were quite a few locals that envisioned some kind of cheesy “Disneyesque” tourist trap instead and felt strongly that such a venue would demean their heritage.

A blogger at http://eternallycool.net/ asked what some of you may be thinking is the obvious question, “In a city thats chock-full of amazing experiences from walking on ancient roads to gazing at Michelangelos frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling do we really need to offer visitors a fabricated alternative to seeing Romes amazing art and architecture? Why build a fake Colosseum in a fake ancient Rome when the real thing is there for the taking?”

Well, I think there is a good reason to construct a living history park.

Learning Through Doing

In his theory of cognitive development, Swiss social psychologist Jean Piaget pointed out that people learn by actively constructing and interrelating knowledge and ideas, rather than by simply assimilating facts. Seymour Papert further observed that not only can people learn more “felicitously” by building objects but reinforce their learning by sharing their creations with others. It is these tenets of learning that, I think, have driven the global embrace of Web 2.0 technologies and the social networking revolution.Jean Piaget, proponent of constructivist learning, theorized that authoritative delivery of information in an unequal social setting constrains cognitive development.

These theories indicate that field trips to world heritage sites and museums help to expose students to relics or structures from the past but without the crucial social element of interaction, advanced knowledge acquisition is limited. Furthermore, according to Piaget, exposure to information through authoritative presentations actually constrains cognitive development, precluding individual exploration and authentic forms of intellectual exchange.

“[in an unequal relational environment between a student and an authority figure] …students might feel constrained to simply spit back what the teacher says and memorize what is in source materials, despite only having a superficial level of understanding and even a lack of conviction in what is being repeated.” – Collaborative learning, reasoning, and technology by Angela M. O’Donnell, Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, Gijsbert Erkens

However, more in-depth learning can occur in situations where equal participants exchange ideas, consider the positions of others and rationalize their beliefs to themselves and those with whom the experience is shared.

“Lacking an authority figure to tell them what is right and wrong, children must, of necessity, coconstruct courses of action, demonstrations, and explanations. This process is open-ended and potentially more likely to have children become aware of gaps and perturbations [disturbances to their existing understanding] in their efforts.” – Collaborative learning, reasoning, and technology By Angela M. O’Donnell, Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, Gijsbert Erkens

Obviously, Piaget studied learning in children, but the basic learning process continues to be used throughout our lifetime. If we accept these principles, then we must admit the shortcomings of depedence on mere exposure to art or architecture as a primary learning tool, especially if it is intended to transmit cultural heritage or values.

Last spring, I attended a wonderful exhibit on Julius Caesar and the late Roman Republic held at the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome. While I was there a number of local school groups of high school-aged students were touring the exhibit with their teachers. As the teachers droned on (for so long, in fact, that one teacher was admonished for holding up other visitors), the students teased each other and basically ignored most of the beautiful art displayed around them. I certainly don’t mean to be critical of Italian students. I have seen the same scenario played out in American museums as well. What a pity that such an opportunity for learning was apparently wasted.

But, how can we introduce the social conditions necessary to stimulate more effective learning in the confines of a secure art gallery or within the fragile limits of an actual ruin? The answer is you can’t unless you construct a more resilient environment – either physically within a constructed living history environment or virtually using navigable 3D graphics with interactive avatars, either human or preprogrammed with natural language artificial intelligence to provide the peer-to-peer interaction needed for authentic learning.

Replica Williamsburg

The proponents of the Roman theme park, however, used Euro-Disney as their example. Local opponents viewed that approach as an Americanization of their culture. Disney is not the example I would have used since it immediately brings to mind cartoon characters and fantasy rather than a respectful approach to cultural history. A much more appropriate example I am familiar with, although still American, is the much more historically authentic Colonial Williamsburg.

In Williamsburg, visitors can walk through authentically-detailed colonial-era structures, eat period food, observe and discuss period-specific activities with reenactor craftsmen like blacksmiths, gunsmiths, wig makers, tailors and apothecaries, take part in legislative debates over colonial-era issues at the courthouse, attend concerts of period music, attend 18th century plays, learn to dance 18th century dances and even take part in an 18th century witch trial. At the nearby colonial military encampment visitors can learn about life in the colonial militia, learn about the weapons of the day and how to use them and watch mock battles and military drills.

From 1699 – 1780 Williamsburg served as the political, cultural, and educational center of what was then the largest, most populous, and most influential of the American colonies. Although the seat of government was eventually moved to Richmond, Virginia, Williamsburg retained many of the structures originally built there. Restoration of the buildings began in 1926, funded by generous donations from philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Rockefeller personally led the restoration effort until his death in 1960. During this time over 80 of the original buildings were preserved and facilities constructed to accomodate the visiting public.

Today, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation operates as a non-profit educational organization. In addition to preserving and interpreting the historical area, the Foundation operates The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Bassett Hall (the former home of Rockefeller during the restoration period) and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. The foundation also receives funds for licensed merchandise and reproductions and from for-profit subsidiaries including hotels, restaurants, convention facilities, and golf courses. The Williamsburg Teaching Institute conducts week-long hands-on workshops for teachers to “learn innovative and engaging ways to teach about the past.”

If the Roman history park had been conceptualized along these lines, it could have been presented as a way to augment the existing cultural remnants with an environment to further enhance the learning experiences Rome offers. Although Williamsburg’s 1 million visitors a year is dwarfed by Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando (which lures in over 17 million visitors per year), a more educational venue like Williamsburg would definitely be less culturally intrusive than a garish Hollywood-style destination resort. Roman history is also so much more diverse and vast than the relatively short period of the American colonies. I think it would naturally draw more visitors, especially in view of its proximity to actual archaeological sites and such a wealth of world-class museums. It would definitely be one of the most interesting learning environments I had ever visited.

Rome Reborn

Although my dream history park still only exists on paper, other efforts to produce virtual historical learning environments have born fruit. The ancient world is a favorite subject since so many ancient structures either no longer exist or are viewable only as crumbling remains. One of the most extensive efforts to recreate an ancient site is Rome Reborn.

“Rome Reborn is an international initiative whose goal is the creation of 3D digital models illustrating the urban development of ancient Rome from the first settlement in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages (ca. A.D. 550).

With the advice of an international Scientific Advisory Committee, the leaders of the project decided that A.D. 320 was the best moment in time to begin the work of modeling. At that time, Rome had reached the peak of its population, and major Christian churches were just beginning to be built. After this date, few new civic buildings were built. Much of what survives of the ancient city dates to this period, making reconstruction less speculative than it must, perforce, be for earlier phases. But having started with A.D. 320, the Rome Reborn team intends to move both backwards and forwards in time until the entire span of time foreseen by our mission has been covered.”Rome Reborn official website

Begun in 1997, the project has progressed through three iterations so far including the modeling of 32 buildings and monuments circa 200 A.D. 22 of these structures once existed in the western part of the Roman Forum: the Tabularium, the Forum of Julius Caesar; the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine; the Temple of Venus and Rome; the Arch of Titus; the Arch of Constantine; the Flavian Amphitheater; the Ludus Magnus; the Septizodium; and the Circus Maximus.

Now on Google Earth

Google Earth now contains 3D models of many of the historical structures visitors will find scattered around Rome.Last year the models of Rome Reborn were added as a new layer in Google Earth. You need version 5.0 of Google Earth to get the subfolder “Ancient Rome 3D” under the Gallery folder in your Layers selection tool. Then you must place a checkmark in the Ancient Rome 3D layer and fly to Forum Romanum.

There you will see small yellow icons representing various models that you can view. Double Clicking on the icons gives you info about the particular structure you have selected but to see the model you must first download Ancient Terrain, Ancient Landmarks (250 buildings) and if you have enough Ram (3 Gb recommended), Ancient Buildings. The ancient buildings folder contains over 5000 images so it will take a while to download. Then you will be able to zoom in, tilt your terrain and view the Rome Reborn models in their proper geographic context using Google Earth’s navigation tools or your mouse.

Is Anybody Out There?

I admire how much effort has gone into the design of these models and that they are freely available to view and study. However, I find the Google Earth navigation scheme awkward and frustrating. For the most part I prefer to view My avatar dressed like Indiana Jones explores the "wonderful things" of King Tut's virtual tomb at Heritage Key.buildings at street level and attaining that angle with the tilt and zoom controls of Google Earth is challenging to say the least. Furthermore, looking at models of buildings and rendered terrain is interesting but a rather solitary experience.

I really prefer to learn about the people of ancient Rome and interact with other Roman history enthusiasts. That’s why I prefer to explore virtual worlds based on OpenSimulator software like Second Life, Heritage Key’s King Tut Virtual or IBM’s virtual Forbidden City.

Remember earlier I mentioned that social psychologist Jean Piaget says we learn most authentically when we can interact with peers? The reason worlds created with Open Simulator have so much more learning potential is that your avatar has communication capabilities that enable it to enter into online chat with other visitors or with preprogrammed or live guides or assistants.

Furthermore, you can customize your avatar to be whatever age or gender or species that you wish to help you experience interactions not biased by physical appearance or age. In the early days of the internet, there was a saying “On the net nobody knows you’re a dog”. I saw many cartoons that showed a real dog using a computer with that caption. This aspect of online environments can actually help people to exchange ideas without the bias of knowing who is older or younger, who is attractive and who isn’t, or even who is male or female (or human or canine!).

No Sex Please – We’re Avatars!

With lions roaring in the background, my avatar eyes the bloody arena in SPQR's amphitheater in Second Life.

Of course some of our ingrained social habits may get in the way at times. Once when I was exploring SPQR, a virtual Roman recreation in Second Life, I noticed another visitor who had a wonderfully detailed barbarian costume.

I mentioned it to one of the other visitors I was talking to and she knew the barbarian I was admiring. She called him over and the other women I was with started saying things like “You go girl” and things like that assuming I was trying to pick up the good looking barbarian. In real life I was probably twice his age. Really, I was just interested in the software that he used to produce the articles of clothing his avatar was wearing.

Second Life can be enjoyable. Although I keep missing the staged gladiatorial combats in the virtual amphitheater in SPQR, I have enjoyed a virtual bath in the Roman baths there. But its purpose is primarily entertainment and relaxation and, of course, making money for Linden Labs, its creator (although there are excellent in-world educational activities available – many produced by real world institutions of higher education).

Consequently, there are few guidelines for vistors within the Second Life environment except for the minimum age limit of 18. You may find yourself in a somewhat compromised position either figuratively or literally since virtual sex is not prohibited and people have become quite adept at adding the appropriate body parts to their avatars!

“…issues related to human interaction and developing community norms need to be addressed as well as the improving the user interface, in-world graphics and server response times.”

I, personally feel more relaxed exploring a more G-rated environment that was created with an educational purpose like King Tut Virtual created by Heritage-Key, or the virtual Forbidden City created by IBM in conjunction with the Palace Museum in Beijing. IBM is investing significant sums into the development of virtual worlds and is convinced online 3D virtual worlds are the next step in the development of the global online experience. But, at a conference in 2007, IBM’s virtual world researchers acknowledged that issues related to human interaction and developing community norms need to be addressed as well as the improving the user interface, in-world graphics and server response times. IBM is also championing the adoption of open standards to facilitate interoperability between virtual world sites to foster widespread adoption and innovation.

Multi-sensory Environments

My avatar, dressed as a lady of the Qing Dynasty court approaches the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the virtual Forbidden City.So, what’s the future of virtual environments? I attended an O’Reilly Emerging Technologies conference a few years ago and 3D graphics specialists were discussing a system that would use a heads-up display to overlay 3D rendered graphics into a visitor’s visual field. The system determined which graphics to display by a GPS sensor keyed to the visitor’s position within a mapped geographic field. The system would include immersive sound and smells as well.

I know to some of you this may sound like a Star Trek holodeck but many of these technologies have been around a long time. The use of scents in conjunction with film dates clear back to 1906. Computerized scent generation was in beta test in the late 20th century. I actually saw a demonstration of a computer-controlled scent dispenser developed for game use at the Comdex Computer Show in Las Vegas over ten years ago. On April 7, 2005, Sony went public with the information that they had filed for and received a patent for the idea of the non-invasive beaming of different frequencies and patterns of ultrasonic waves directly into the brain to recreate all five senses.

I think before too much longer researchers will combine these technologies with motion capture, wireless networking and, hopefully, one of my favorites, natural language artificial intelligence systems to provide fully immersive worlds complete with virtual human or programmed companions (or antagonists) within the virtual space.

All of these technologies currently exist. It’s just a matter of combining them in a way that not only works well but makes it possible to produce quantities of them at a widely affordable cost.

These systems would make it possible for those interested in authentic learning and cultural preservation to merge real world heritage sites with virtual environments to provide the collaborative relationships needed to advance understanding and appreciation of our shared heritage.

For example, if such a system were deployed at the Colosseum, visitors would don their headsets and, as they walked around the site, they could switch views between the current semi-ruin and a recreated model of the structure. You could smell and hear the animals waiting for release in underground passages and watch virtual gladiators fight it out in the arena. Informational guides would appear at specific GPS locations and not only provide additional information to you but answer your questions. A virtual Roman crowd would fill the stands and if you sat at a particular GPS location you may find yourself engaged in a conversation with a disgruntled tavern keeper or maybe the Emperor himself!